Saturday, March 22, 2014

Racist and Ignorant


Too much of our national political dialogue is tied up in racial stereotypes. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS RACE.  IT’S A POLITICAL FICTION, NOT A HUMAN DISTINCTION WITH ANY SIGNIFICANT BASIS IN FACT.

Since that statement is sure to start a lot of yelling and screaming, let’s get to the real point.  At the end of this blog are my references,  Some are pretty deep in scientific jargon, others not so much.

Skin color is race.  But skin color is not what you think.  Skin color is evidence that evolution has worked to adapt humans to various climates and latitudes.

If you are a human, your ancestors came out of Africa about 200,000 years ago and they had black skin.  Not brown, but black.  About 50,000 years ago, some migrated to northern climes and their skin adapted to the lower levels of ultraviolet and turned lighter.  UV is vital to making vitamin D.  This skin color change took about 2500 years.  Some of those light skinned folks migrated to southeast Asia, where their skin turned dark again.  20,000 years ago a few of those came over the Aleutian Isthmus and went down to South America, where selection pressure turned their skin dark again.  

In the history of humanity, 2500 years, about 200 generations, is nothing.  Skin color changed many times.  

There are two kinds of melanin, a brown variant, which makes dark eyes and black, brown or olive skin, and a red variant, which appears in redheads and some interesting female body parts.  The gene for redheads is recessive.  It can hide for generations and suddenly two hidden genes come together and, Voila! The legendary red-headed child.  Recessives linger on in the population forever.  

While the folks who lived in colder, less sunny climates, especially those who lived in mountain valleys sheltered from sunlight for some part of every day, grew lighter, folks in hot, tropical places adapted to heat.  Many of those places were also deficient in salt, so their heart muscles strengthened to pump thicker blood.  Their kidneys adapted to working efficiently with less water.  Their skin pores enlarged and their body hair almost disappeared so sweating became more efficient.

The rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago moved scattered hunter-gatherer tribes to villages, and disease vectors became a problem.  One adaptation in hot climes was resistance to malaria, an ancient, relentless killer.  Sickle cells and changes to the chemical nature of the red blood cell membrane are selective adaptations to malaria.
Obviously, lots of melanin in dark skin protects against sunburn.

So we can see nature at work, evolutionary selection causing folks to adapt to their climates.  This is a good thing.  Otherwise we would still be stuck in Africa and probably all wiped out by some simple, common disaster.  Now humans have adaptations for just about everywhere on Earth.

But skin color is neither permanent nor irreversible.  It has changed over the various human migrations and it is still changing.  It’s absurd to classify humans according to such an ephemeral feature as skin color.

The advent of white skin is about 7,000 years old.  The advent of discrimination based on skin color is new - about 500 years old, and in Europe and the West it arose simultaneously with the import of dark-skinned people as slaves.  

Ancient Egyptians, the classical Greeks, the Romans did not discriminate against skin color.  In more recent time there has been some discrimination against castes in India, but skin color is not the defining characteristic of caste.  Asians have a preference for light-skinned women, but they do not practice the racial discrimination we see in slave holder countries.  In many hot climates, men prefer very dark females.  

The problem is that, having adapted to hot climates and cold climates, we tend to travel nowadays.  We relocate.

Hearts that were adapted to pumping thick blood are now prone to high blood pressure.  Skin that was protected from sunlight now has trouble making vitamin D.  Red blood cells that gave resistance to malaria are now prone to sickling crisis.

Alternatively, people from cold climates try to get tanned and wind up with melanomas.  Survival without an air conditioner is impossible in the summer.  And make sure you take your malaria pills when you travel to the tropics.

Now we get to the most divisive issue, the one that eugenicists and their scientifically stupid cohorts embraced, that intelligence is a racial characteristic.  If dark-skinned people were inferior, it had to be because they were intellectually unequal due to genetic causes.  Nurture and culture could not be the issue, because these could be changed.  It had to be genetic.

It isn’t.

Intelligence is a very complex phenomenon, genetically, and depends on many “operons” that were subject to genetic selection during the first 10 million years of hominid evolution.  There is no locus on the human genome for IQ.  Period.

However, let’s assume that we have yet to discover how DNA produces intelligence.  We know, at least, that it is not a single locus or even a group of genes in close proximity.  Now let’s consider sex.  

Sex is Nature’s genetic mixmaster.  Every baby is a blended result of his parent’s 64 million genes.  Some of those are recessive, hidden.  When we see a pudgy baby face and try to see which parent it most resembles, we are looking at the tip of an iceberg of characteristics that have managed, by  so many strange paths, to become the phenotype for that one, singular, unique baby.  No other baby has them (except for identical twins from the same egg).  

Considering sexual variances, traveling genes, multiple copies, horizontal genetic transfer, genetic drift and random mutations, what are the chances that some skin-color related operon actually determined that baby’s IQ?

About zero.

References:

  1. Wikipedia, “Skin Color”
  2. Oxford Journal of Human Molecular Genetics, vol 16 issue R2
  3. Scientist, Jablonski, 10/1/12
  4. The Logic of Chance: The Nature and Origin of Biological Evolution, Eugene V. Koonin
  5. The Origins of Order, Stuart Kauffman, (sections on rugged fitness landscapes and the VK model)
  6. The Sage of Saggitarius, Ken Brody (unpublished work in progress)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Connecticut Yankees in Revolt


State Sen. Tony Guglielmo (R-Stafford), who acknowledged at the time that, "If you pass laws that people have no respect for and they don't follow them, then you have a real problem.”

Civil disobedience is the second step in a process where the legitimate interests of a group are ignored by authorities.  The first step is prompt action in the courts.  Failing these prior steps, the third step is armed revolt.
Connecticut has passed a law required registration of all guns conforming to some political notion of an “assault weapon”.  The recent knife attack in southern China killing 29 people shows that any weapon can be used for assault, and the very attempt to redefine the term “assault weapon” is evidence of blatant propaganda.  
Federal law (the National Firearms Act 18 U.S.C. 926) prevents the ATF or any other Federal agency from linking the NCIC data base to individual gun ownership, effectively blocking the creation of a Federal gun registry.    This is the same law that outlawed fully automatic machine guns.  Whether this pre-empts a state from creating such a registry is a question for the courts.  
With the stroke of a pen, Connecticut’s gun registration creates felons out of lawful gun owners whose action were previously deemed innocent.  There is a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison for the first offense.  This is an “ex post facto” law in contradiction of Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution and that article applies to both Federal and state laws.  It is also a “slippery slope" issue because it may serve as a precedent for other states.  Finally, the NRA and every other Second Amendment advocate group recognizes that gun registration is the necessary first step to gun confiscation.  If anyone doubts the intent of the anti-gun folks, please witness that President Obama already signed a U.N Treaty calling for gun registration to be followed by small arms confiscation.  Former New York City Mayor Bloomberg is on public record as saying that only the military and police should have guns.  His bodyguards, who are neither military nor police, do carry guns.
Obviously, the failure of this gun registration law has created a class of citizens in civil disobedience.  This case is somewhat unique.  In my research of two dozen cases of civil disobedience, all were based on Mahatma Ghandi’s concepts of civil disobedience:
"Civil disobedience is the inherent right of a citizen to be civil, implies discipline, thought, care, attention and sacrifice”.
Here we have a large, well-armed group, Connecticut Carry, screaming “Molon Labe (Come and get it!)”.   Historically, those cases were armed revolt, not civil disobedience.
One of the best descriptions of authority is that of the King in Exupery’s “The Little Prince”, who declares:
"Accepted authority rests first of all on reason. If you ordered your people to go and throw themselves into the sea, they would rise up in revolution. I have the right to require obedience because my orders are reasonable.”
Moshe Feiglin, an Israeli whose civil disobedience was instrumental to the formation of Israel, said it clearly:
“It is a mistake to think that the state works within the boundaries of laws. The public does not obey laws. It obeys rules within the boundaries of a triangle, the first side of which is the law. But the triangle has two other sides: common sense and ethics.
In other words, the fact that we obey the law is not because of the law itself, but because it is logical enough to warrant our adherence.
The third side of the triangle is ethics. If the government ordered us to drive our elderly and infirm out onto the frozen tundra, as per Eskimo custom, we might agree that it would logically enhance the economy. But nobody would obey, because it would be patently immoral. The party at fault for the insubordination would be the government that enacted the law and not the citizens who refused to obey.
The greatest crimes in human history were perpetrated when citizens ignored their duty to delineate logical and ethical boundaries for the rule of law. The societies in which this took place by and large collapsed.”
The right to keep and bear arms is included in the Constitution as a last resort of the people faced with tyranny.  It is not just a sporting privilege for hunters and marksmen.  This is bedrock for the liberty of US citizens.
Consider what the police would have to do to enforce the registration and/or confiscation dictates of this law.  You will not see nice, polite cops going door to door serving papers.  These are “armed felons”.  The police response would be SWAT teams breaking down doors in the middle of the night, shooting the family dog, terrorizing children and instigating death and injuries on themselves and on other law abiding people.  Is this some insane way of saving children from Newtown incidents?  No, it has nothing to do with saving children.  This is the government tightening the screws on a population to enhance control.  As I said, this is bedrock for the liberty of US citizens.
No doubt, some will perish in this sort of armed civil disobedience.  However, it is my bet the Founders were right.  It will impossible, impractical and, eventually, politically unwise to disarm the citizens of the United States.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Insurance Versus Extortion

The huge fellow built like a refrigerator with no neck came into my shop behind a dapper guy carrying a briefcase.  
“What can I do for you, ah, gentlemen?”  I almost choked on that last word.
“I’m gonna help out your business.  I see you have a nice place here.  $60,000 per week, that about right?”  The dapper guy should have had a toothpick in the corner of his mouth.  He didn’t.  That bothered me.
“That’s not public information.”
“Hey, it’s OK, I’m not the public.  I’m gonna sell you insurance to keep your nice place from fires, people coming in here and breaking it up,  Like that, you understand?”  The refrigerator scowled and gave me the evil eye.
“It’ll only cost you $1,000 a week.  Guiseppe here will come call on you to collect.  Say, Mondays?”

Extortion.  

“I’m gonna tell you what health insurance you need.  Like an Olympic medal, bronze, gold or platinum, all the same except for the prices.  Say $500 per month with a $3,000 deductible and a $40 copay.  My IRS agents will be here every so often to collect.  You will start January 1st.”

Insurance?  

The idea of insurance is to create a financial hedge against a rare, but catastrophic, event by paying a small premium into a pooled fund.  If the actuarial calculations are done right and the pooled fund is managed by a truly independent and trustworthy firm, that firm is entitled to a reasonable profit for their services.  

Independent means that the insurer cannot affect the probability of the loss.

Trustworthy means that the insurer has a history of good performance and is transparent about their financials.

Reasonable profit is defined by free market competition.  If competition is eliminated or regulated, there will be no force to establish a reasonable profit.

Regulation is required to punish criminal acts, such as false claims, misappropriation of the pooled funds, and scam offers.  Regulation should never restrict remedies or markets.

Health insurance beggars the definition of insurance.  It’s not insurance, it’s a debit fund.

Doctor visits are not rare events, they are life cycle events, especially at the beginning and end of that cycle.  By taking over the approval and pricing of common events like doctor visits and flu shots, insurers have initiated an endless cycle of increasing demand for services at higher prices.  Coverage has escalated way beyond the  extraordinary event.  We no longer pay for the simple things out of pocket, we file insurance claims.    The costs of simple services have become outrageously expensive.  We never consider paying them out of pocket anymore.  

We used to, in my lifetime.  I remember.  We had the money and our doctors were our friends.  For comparison, ask any doctor how they love today’s coding, paperwork, and multiple insurer billing systems.  They will tell you they had something different in mind in medical school.

Insurers restrict available remedies, negatively affecting the health of the insured.   They expand “coverages” to things you really don’t need, like educational flyers that pretend to offer medical advice.  As they tie up large networks of hospitals and doctors, they begin to control heath outcomes, a dangerous thing for the insured.  

Why doesn’t the free market eliminate these distortions?  What free market?

Standing between the insured and practitioners,  insurance masks the actual costs of health care and allows extreme distortions of costs, treatments and outcomes.  Insured can’t compare costs or options. We’re only told if the procedure is covered or not.   We lost control of the free market mechanism.  This was noted several times in editorials ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the Proceedings of the American Medical Association.  Forgive me for not listing these references here.  They are easy to find.

States mandate coverages and limit competition through the actions of insurance commissions, malpractice law and hospital regulation.  There is no portability between states, or even between employers.  There is no level playing field between insured and insurers, insured and hospitals, insured and drug companies.  You get sick, you do more or less what they allow, and no one can help.  You lose your employer and your income AND you go on COBRA, well named, as it doubles your cost and halves your coverage while you go through the stress of finding another job.  If you find another job you start all over with a new deductible.

Health insurers are protected by these regulations, touted to protect consumers, that only pervert the free market.  The insurer is no longer independent of the loss.  Competition is heavily restricted.  Mediated by insurers, hospitals and drug companies have little incentives to react to market forces.  In fact, they are so heavily dependent on insurers that they readily agree to aid them in increasing premiums, if it also increases their payments.

Obamacare “fixes” this mess with MORE onerous regulation, penalties to those who do not sign up, and “reimbursement” schedules for those who cannot pay enough for these inflated premiums.  Obamacare divides the carcass of health care among various lobbyists to the extreme detriment of individual choice and destroys the last remnant of free market competition.  It is a bill of attainder for “health insurance”, not a health improvement plan for the people.


Are there any features in the ACA bill worth retaining?

ACA mandates a complex system of medical data sharing for payments and for the collection of health statistics.  At this date, none of this structure has been built, but regional hospitals and clinics have similar systems and the diagnostic codes are slowly being implemeted.  This experience data base is supposed to allow “outcome based procedures”, a winnowing of medical procedures down to those that show some arbitrary combination of lower cost and better outcome.  For example, breast exams may be only ever y 2 years instead of every 6 months.  Prostate PSA scores my be ignored until they reach 20 (normal is zero).  All this is supposed to bend the cost curve downward, as Dr. Larry Summers claimed in his original these in US health care.

These are strident examples of collective medicine, where an IPAB board, far removed from the patient, decides what is good for the majority and to hell with the individual.  Collective medicine is the wrong direction, medically.  We have a burgeoning science that optimizes therapies based on an individual’s genome.  Collective medicine is for clones, not individuals with their individual reactions and preferences.  

The system, if it is ever completely implemented, would be imponderable.  The cost and maintenance of such a national system can be measured by the dubious success of the far simpler ACA online system.

Medical science is the repository of the hopes of ill people and the fears of politicians.  US life expectancy has topped out because of improvements in maternal, obstetric and pediatric care, but the life expectancy of a 50 year old man has not changed an iota.  It is so difficult and expensive to get new protocols or drugs or devices into the market that they are being throttled by cost and regulation in the name of “safety”.  After spending an good fraction of a billion dollars to develop a new molecule for market and get approved by the FDA, the only hope to recover these costs is to get a series of exclusive patents and charge outrageous prices for the product.  New products are at the mercy of the FDA for approval and at the mercy of insurers for payment.  Of course, these new drugs and procedures tend to increase insurance costs and, hopefully, prolong the lives of ill people.  Both are bad things from the point of view of insurers.

Obamacare has a provision called the “corridor” that reimburses insurers for their losses during the first 3 years, and takes some of their profits if they make more than expected.  It’s a form of reinsurance.  The latest projections are that this corridor will run one way only - funneling taxpayer money down to the insurers.  Where do you think political pressure will be for new drugs and procedures?  The bill also has a panel of political appointees, the IPAB, none of whom require medical knowledge, to decide these issues.  What direction do you think they will go?  This alone will bring new medical advances to a screeching halt.  There will be negative incentives for them.

There are astounding new discoveries being made in molecular biology as we explore the pathways of human metabolism, protein synthesis and the actions of small RNA segments that regulate gene expression.  I’ve seen predictions that the human life span can be extended to about 140 years of reasonable good health.  Imagine, for a moment, that these technologies actually exist today.  What do you think the IPAB response would be?  Do you think they would EVER be available under Obamacare?  If they exist, and they may exist, they would disrupt every government plan from Social Security to voting demographics and food distribution.  

Government interests do not coincide with yours.  Ever.  Why should you allow them to control your health?

Now you will pay a price you cannot afford or the thugs come in and rip up your health and your wallet.  The great winner is the Federal government.  It has a health dossier on every citizen.  It has the power of the IRS to collect from the unwilling.  It has final and unchallengeable control over medical procedures, doctors and hospitals. It can buy votes by redistributing health.  It has gained a life or death power over nearly every person in the country by the push of a button.  Oh, and the perpetrators are exempt.


Coming blogs will explore better answers to the health care problem. I’ll talk about things that could have been done that will stand in stark contrast to the Obamacare nightmare.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Hidden Hand - Luck or God?

We are constructed in such a way that we make patterns in order to survive.  Most of these patterns are useful, such as the ability to connect outlines of an object hidden behind a tree with a known animal, or the occurrence of storms with a certain pattern of clouds in the sky.  

Not all such patterned associations are obvious.  Most of the things we deal with on a practical level, such as weather and visual data and even sounds, are pretty chaotic.  We have developed a lot of computational machinery to deal with it.  Of course, there are false positives and false negatives in such a complex perception.  The difference between a keen analytical observation of cause and effect and a random coincidence is not always clear.  It becomes even more vague and fuzzy when we have no background for a logical explanation.  The difference between superstition and understanding is knowledge.  A person who has no way to connect the parts of a coincidence is inclined to see a hidden hand behind the scenery.  This is the exact same mechanism that perceives the outline of a tiger partly hidden in the grass.  It's better to see the tiger, even if it isn't there, than to miss it and get eaten.

The hidden hand explanation is only a part of the the atheist vs theist debate. 

If God is the perceived hidden hand you may be seeing a false positive pattern.  Or, there may be a God pulling strings behind the curtain of reality.  There is no obvious test for either hypothesis.  However, there is another definition of God that bypasses the false pattern issue.  That would be God the Creator, a master architect who set up the rules of physics we observe, and reality simply runs according to those rules.  The hand is not hidden, we can see it alright, but we cannot easily connect it to the vision of a bearded, paternal, omniscient deity.  

In this version, there are random events and there are still the false positives of pattern recognition we call coincidences, but they are irrelevant to the question of a deity.  God retreats behind string theory or some such -  still impressive, but not so much concerned with what church you belong to, or even if you ever go at all.

I have noticed that the debate has turned recently to the derivation of ethics, and the atheistic humanists are now closer to the theists on those issues.  

For the record, I am a theist, and I understand that this is akin to a belief in magic.  What a dull place this would be if there were no such magic in the world.

Energy is the Life of the Country


I remember being impressed about the importance of power by an input-output model of the US economy in my college economics class.  A country may be rich in labor and raw materials, but without that power input, growth is a struggle.

In the United States, one economist estimated that each household has the effective assistance of 14 people’s labor.  That is because of the washer and dryer, dishwasher, refrigerator, lawnmower, autos, power tools, fans, pumps, etc.  We don’t have to haul water from the village well any more.  We don’t have to keep live chickens in the yard in order to eat chicken unless we want to raise chickens.

Power is often described in categories as renewable or non-renewable.   I prefer to use categories such as transportable, compact and universal.  For example, wind power is not compact enough for powering land transport unless it can be stored as some other secondary form but is suitable for ships, while gasoline is a primary and compact source of automobile power.  Sunlight in larger arrays is quite useful for some industrial processes.   However, electricity is by far the cheapest and most transportable form of energy.  It is 1000 times less expensive to send a megawatt of power over utility lines than the equivalent methane through the next best medium, a gas pipeline.  Even with the inevitable losses, it is cheaper to convert many power sources, such as solar arrays and wind farms, to electricity for transport than to convert them into, say, hydrogen split from water, then transmitted by pipeline.

For the next two or more decades, developed nations will depend primarily on fossil fuels, derived from petroleum and coal, for electric power.  In the US, and I believe in China as well, the largest electric generation source is coal fired boilers.  Next in importance is nuclear and natural gas, in that order.  Renewable sources remain a tiny wedge of the energy pie diagram.  They are cost effective only in special locations such as those designated as Wind Power Class 7, where the wind speed averages about 10 meters per second, or the Mojave Desert where there is over 300 days of full sun per year.  Without subsidies, other wind and solar locations would not exist.

I like ground source heat pumps, geothermal energy and low speed hydropower sources, but they are even more dependent on special locations than wind and solar.

The lesson is that we ought to generate electricity from whatever source is local and convenient and tie them all together with a good electric grid, perhaps using DC instead of AC power to avoid phasing issues.

We look forward to fusion power, but for the last 50 years since the first Tokamak, commercial fusion has remained 50 years away.  It is still 50 years away.

So we are stuck with fossil fuels for the near term, perhaps most of our lifetimes, or we could choose a less rosy, perhaps dismal, economic future.

The Old Gods


The Old Gods knew us well and used us badly.  They raped our women to raise heroes, set them against implacable foes to test them or break them at their whim.  Mortals suffered titanic struggles as hapless agents in an Empyrean proxy battle. Old Gods commanded temples of stone and inspired epics.  We prayed for glory, we prayed for peace.  We prayed, at long last, for deliverance from meddling deities.  We prayed away the Old Gods.

Fearing to be godless, we found new Gods.  We had struck a deal.  They asked for little and delivered less.  It was divine justice.

Then and now we suffer myriad mundane struggles. The whims of the Old Gods are now the plots of twisted tyrants and the corrupt. These are imitators of gods who crave power without the burden of leadership.  Glory is gone.  Fantasy substitutes for epics. Temples ask for revenue, not worship.  We imitate the Old Gods, badly, as if we were attempting to create ourselves in their image.  

We don’t pray for glory.  We still pray for peace.  We pray for an easier road to travel.  We pray for simple survival.  Will we stop imitating the Old Gods and recognize the godhood in each of us?  Will we finally  accept godhood and the responsibility that goes with it?  

Can we imitate a better God?

Seeds Within Seeds Forever


Forget the egocentric answers. Life probably has no meaning at all on the personal level. 

On the universal level, across a universe 14 billion years old, with a quintillion possible living worlds, perhaps there is a larger pattern. Life could be an emergent phenomenon of self-organization. Most things decay over time, but life builds, evolves, becomes something greater than its origins. Life sweeps up bits of information and patterns into knowledge, merging and joining knowledge into civilizations, shedding its local origins and spreading out, even to the stars.

Life starts small and grows.  A virus, a bacteriophage, a bacteria, a plankton, an insect, an animal, a human and an elephant all start as a seed of some kind.

Perhaps, at the end of time, life is indeed the Creator's reason, and what life becomes then, His purpose.  

Perhaps the Creator’s main invention is the seed.  And who knows how many levels of seeds within seeds were created?